The alarm goes off at 5:35 AM. I roll out of bed and make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and shower before throwing on some clothes and making my way in to see Tyler — who is almost 5 — at 6. He’s still at the fun age where he wants me to wake him up before I go to work. I take advantage of it because I know that before long he’ll be sleeping until noon. At 6:30, I’m out the door headed for work with an audiobook playing on my iPhone. After a bunch of hours at my computer doing, it’s off to the gym with the same audiobook pumping into my ears. At about 5, I’m back home taking over care of the kids from either my wife or the nanny. And from then until I get them to bed at 8, it’s full-on caretaking. After another shower, I’m usually passed out in bed by 9.
Now, I’m willing to bet that if you make a few substitutions, you have a similar day. For example, you may get up a bit later, listen to the radio on your way to work and, rather than taking in the latest episode of “Super Why,” watch grown-up TV at night. Any which way, the point is the same, nary a minute of quiet is allowed to enter our day during which we can consider the major challenges we are facing.
When I think about it, I get some of my best ideas during the few silent moments I’ve been unable to banish from my day, but if you’ve got a shower radio, you’ve probably done away with those as well. Perhaps all that’s left is the time before you fall asleep, when a pressing issue tries its hardest to snatch some of your mental attention before you drift off to la-la land. But if the pressing issue is a serious one, you are doing yourself and your organization a disservice.
Work, you see, in the classic sense we all think of it, is merely the operationalizing of ideas, and ideas, like plants, need certain conditions in which to germinate. These conditions just happen to be the ones in shortest supply because of the lifestyle I described above — all sensory input, all the time.
Now, it is certain that just as plants need soil, water and sunlight to grow, so do you need education as the raw materials from which your ideas will sprout. But if you never give yourself the proper rumination time, they won’t break the surface.
And just what is rumination time? It is time that you allocate to ponder a specific problem during which nothing else is allowed to distract you. It may be time spent driving in the car or sitting on a park bench, but the key is that you must be going somewhere you are familiar with, or sitting at a park you know well. The surrounding environment or activity has to be rote that none of your mental energy is consumed by it. If you are conjuring up a picture of someone who appears not to be working at all, you are on the right track. Oh, and one more thing, a tool for idea capture is critical. This may be as simple as a notebook, if you are stationary; or making use of the voice notes recorder on your phone if you are driving. I wonder how many ideas that could have changed the world — or at least the life of the people who had them — evaporated because they weren’t quickly captured.
History has some good lessons for us. In many of my readings, I’ve come across great figures who, usually as the result of some setback or failure, endured a period of forced inactivity right before their greatest accomplishments. They had to “cool their heels,” as it were, before charging the next hill or returning to power. In the fields of science, not surprisingly, breakthroughs are often the hard won results of intense contemplation.
Take Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA.
“On the way to the Whim I slowly walked toward the Clare Bridge, staring up at the gothic pinnacles of the King’s College Chapel that stood out sharply against the spring sky. I briefly stopped and looked over at the perfect Georgian features of the recently cleaned Gibbs Building, thinking that much of our success was due to the long uneventful periods when we walked among the colleges or unobtrusively read the new books that came into Heffer’s Bookstore.” — The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, By James D. Watson
Or the formulation of Einstein’s most famous theories.
“The year 1905 was also when Einstein wrote a series of papers that changed our view of the universe forever. On the surface, he seemed to have been leading a pleasant, quiet life until then. He had often been interested in physics puzzles as a child, and was now a recent university graduate, easygoing enough to have many friends. He had married a bright fellow student, Mileva, and was earning enough money from a civil service job in the patent office to spend his evenings and Sundays in pub visits, or long walks — above all, he had a great deal of time to think.” — E=mc-2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation, By David Bodanis
Now, you may not be working to unlock the secrets of the universe, but success in your endeavors is, I’m sure, of paramount importance to you. And what will give you the greatest chance of achieving that success is not working harder, but working smarter. But you will only figure out how to work smarter if you think. So figure out a way to schedule some contemplation and rumination time into your day, have a specific problem in mind, set a deadline to come up with a solution and have at it. Folks passing by may think you’re just feeding the ducks, but you’ll know you’re cracking the code.